Overcoming Brain Stem Theology

I remember the first time my husband and I attended a Christian church that did not identify as fundamentalist or evangelical. It was a day that offered me a jolt that conjured an awareness in me that I did not realize was dormant. 

Attempting to join a seemingly casual Sunday morning theological discussion, I submitted (what I believed to be) an easily agreeable response to a question meant to provoke a much deeper consideration than I had assumed (and even experienced before that moment). Although I can’t exactly remember the subject of that conversation, I do remember being immediately and publicly challenged to identify the source of my kind, but knee-jerk response. A wave of embarrassment, confusion, and frustration came over me and left me swirling under the surface before I could gather my bearings and return for conscious air- only to find a room full of people with the same inquisitive expression awaiting a response. I turned to my husband who, channeling his amazing talent for charming a room, tapped into his knowledge of the Bible and shifted the discussion trajectory to a more intriguing question. While I was grateful for the escape from socially redeeming my answer, the challenge left me spinning for months… I still get a bit of vertigo just revisiting how unaware I was about my ignorance of the faith I had trustingly adopted since the age of three. 

I suppose this moment was my personal red pill juncture. I scoured the Bible for any reference to back up my knee jerk answer I was sure I had heard hundreds of times in the church of my upbringing.    

It. Was. Nowhere. To. Be. Found. 

For example, many of us have heard of “forgive and forget.” However, the Bible says nothing about forgetting alongside forgiving. Honestly, forgetting would impede the growth we experience through forgiveness…. -a topic worth focusing on, so I have here. While this may be an obvious conclusion to some, for someone like me who blindly believed what I had allowed others to vet, a discovery like this punctured a large fracture into the dam I had built my faith within. 

I felt ashamed, and misled by the community I had blindly (and carelessly) trusted. Not to mention angry I so strictly adopted and followed a faith that required others to gather and digest for me. Honestly, it is considered bad form and dangerous to question the vetting process of leaders within the religious conservative church. 

By this point in my life, I had already served several years as a pastor’s wife. In that time, my words had never been challenged in a church community setting. And previous to that, I never witnessed anyone challenge commonly shared theology in a social context. The closest incident being a sermon delivered by the youth pastor filling in for the senior pastor while away who chose to highlight Thessalonians 5:21 which directs believers to “test everything that is said” regarding church leadership. He was asked to resign within a week of the senior pastor’s return. I was twelve at the time. This is the culture that framed my world view. Color in the lines, because the church will banish those who color outside (or even point out) the established boundaries. 

I am now 47. F-o-r-t-y-S-e-v-e-n. For nearly forty-seven years I’ve trusted that my current decisions can fully rely on the concepts I previously, and with little acknowledgment, adopted as truth. After turning to take a hard look at how many of my adopted concepts compare against the truth of the Holy Spirit as s(he) speaks to me, my heart sinks with the realization of how I have allowed others to program my faith and values rather than vetting the spiritual food placed before me for efficient consumption. Despite my decision to live consciously, my subconscious brainstem will always receive environmental cues first- many of which will trigger my fight-or-flight responses. While I believe that it is not impossible to rewire knee-jerk responses placed there by various sources/experiences throughout my life I had considered as trusted and even” inerrant,” I also know it will take a lot of safe experiences (counter to what I have been conditioned to believe as truth) and some heavy conversation with my Maker to dislodge the lenses I have carelessly adopted as absolute truth so that I can at least stall and eventually prevent my instinct to fight or run. 

I am also becoming painfully aware of how my pattern of allowing generational religious narcissism to inform my personal value-base resembles the emotional neglect of a garden variety alcoholic. Religious inebriation prevents healthy, conscious, and authentic relationships- with community, friends, family, my children, and honestly- myself. Don’t get me wrong- I have lived a happy life from this perspective. I have celebrated many of life’s achievements that communicate apparent success, while I admit that I have only been chasing tokens in a dissociative state which allowed me to reside in a condition of bliss to numb cognitive dissonance. Why would I even think to question my programmed values? I was winning at life. 

The fact is, while I was winning at life, I was losing at living. I was a doormat to anyone who could guilt or shame me into believing I needed to serve a set of values that religion enforced as absolute truth. I was trapped by the belief that I needed to deny any urge to question the basis of values mandated by those who claimed ultimate guidance from on high. I was drunk on religious fundamentals. I was too numbed to access my conscious guide. My own kids could not access their mother, because their mother didn’t fully exist. What’s worse, my limited existence as a doormat did not serve to benefit my kids, it only served a machine that demanded my emotional sacrifice and ethical allegiance to uphold a racist, sexist, and therefore perverted relationship to God through a faith that insisted I needed it in order to have a snowball’s chance in hell to access God’s approval. Why would my kids now see me as anything else than a doormat? They have every right to be angry and jealous of my dedication in prioritizing my services to those who treated my loyalty with the acknowledgment of a doped and trafficked sex slave- while they starved.  

Although my awareness to the gravity of my cult relationship with religion was further roused when conservative religious efforts turned more toward a unified endeavor to whore Jesus to the political arena of 2016, I have my kids to thank for the splash of cold water and dowse of reality that I had also played into the system that abused those whose alternative efforts/values threatened the sustainability of religious conservatism in America. I had effectively abused my children’s trust by neglecting to keep my own values in check and, in turn, neglecting to fulfill my duty as a guardian to protect them from harm. My refusal to slay dragons left me feeding the dragons that continue to haunt them today. I bought into an ideal that turned out to be toxic and empty- because it is a faith not designed for me and is enforced by those who only profit from pushing lies. It doesn’t matter that I was brainwashed to believe it- what matters is that I chose the easy path of continuing to participate. It is not enough for us to separate from toxic faith. We must also acknowledge our part in this nightmare of a reality- as I am, with every conscious effort to extinguish this generational and cultural curse. May God forgive us. May our kids one day generate the mercy to do the same.

The last couple of years have landed me in a spiritual desert. Or maybe I am simply waking to the place I’ve been inhabiting for years. Fresh sobriety, whether from substance or toxic faith, is like that. I am learning to dig for my own water since drinking the sand of my former pursuits left me too parched to be of any use to anyone including myself. I will no longer tolerate the sand of homophobic rhetoric. I will cease drinking the sand of sexist hierarchy. I will draw my nourishment from wells that do not prioritize race, creed, access to human rights, financial or political profit, or loyalty in exchange for toxic inclusion. I will stop allowing the examples of men from another time and culture to mold how my relationship with God as a woman in this time and culture should look or feel- that space is reserved for my monogamous relationship with God. I will honor the truth others practice as they pursue their own authentic existence. I will not condemn others for not pursuing the truth that God has intended for my own spiritual journey. 

This blog is my journal. I blog because I believe that true healing begins with raw authenticity. I blog because I hope that my life lessons will prevent others from cultivating a fate they could prevent with a little awareness and a lot of shared empathy. I blog because that is how I best process where to go from here. 

I will start by choosing to live consciously. I will aim to love intentionally. I will pursue truth and honor the truth of those I am fortunate enough to walk alongside in my newfound sobriety. Hi, my name is Stephanie, and I’m a recovering cultiholic.

“Maybe my role with the people I love is not imagining the truest, most beautiful life for them and then pushing them toward it. Maybe I’m just supposed to ask what they feel and know and imagine. And then, no matter how different their unseen order is from mine, ask what I can do to support their vision.” -Glennon Doyle, Untamed

“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'” -Jeremiah 29:11


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